The Euphrates River

Spanning 1,740 miles in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, the Euphrates has a long and storied legacy of being a Cradle of Civilizations.

5. Description

The longest river in Western Asia, the Euphrates flows for a distance of 2,800 kilometers, arising in Turkey and flowing through Syria and Iraq to drain into the Persian Gulf. The river rises from the confluence of its headwaters formed by the Karasu and Murat Rivers in the Armenian Highlands of Turkey. The Euphrates then flows along the Taurus mountains into the Syrian Plateau, finally draining parts of Iraq therein, and then entering the Persian Gulf through the Shatt Al-Arab formed by its union with the Tigris River. Together, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin served as the seat of a number of ancient, advanced Mesopotamian civilizations. The river, one of the most historically important rivers of Western Asia, finds numerous mentions in the Hadiths of Prophet Muhammad, as well as the Judeo-Christian Bible.

4. Historical Role

Evidence of ancient human occupation in the form of stone artifacts from the Neolithic Age have been discovered in the upper courses of the Euphrates river in the aptly named "Fertile Crescent" Region. Hunting, gathering, and rain-fed agricultural activities supported the life of these ancient Neolithic dwellers. The development of irrigation methods gradually led to the expansion of human population towards the lower, more arid reaches of the river basin in the 6th Millennium BC. Small villages dotted the river basin during this time, and archaeologists' recoveries of clay boats from this era indicate the use of the river as a mode of transport. The 4th Millennium BC witnessed the emergence of flourishing civilizations in the Mesopotamia region, the development of major cities, and the rapid growth of the human population along the Euphrates. Establishment of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires occurred along the river basin in the later centuries to cme as well. The Euphrates River was also the site of the Battle of Karbala, a significant war in the history of Islam that is marked as an even that led to the separation of Islamic believers into the Sunni and Shi’a sects still seen today.

3. Modern Significance

Currently, the Euphrates River basin is heavily populated by Turks in the upper courses of the river, and Kurds and Arabs along its middle and lower courses. A small population of Jews and Christians also inhabit this region. The Euphrates River acts as the lifeline for all of the people settled along its banks. Olives, fruits, tobacco, and cereal grains are grown along the banks of the river in Syria. In Iraq, cultivation is heavily dependent on irrigation, and rice, corn, wheat, barley, sugar beets, and date palms are grown in this region. A large number of dams and reservoirs have also been constructed on the Euphrates River to reduce floods and droughts, as well as to generate hydroelectric power. The Atatürk Dam, built on the Euphrates in Turkey, generates 8,900 Gigawatt-hours of electricity annually. The Tabqa Dam in Syria and the Haditha Dam in Iraq are other significant hydroelectric power-generating dams on the river. The Tigris-Euphrates River Basin is also once of the most culturally and historically rich areas of the world, acting as a cradle for numerous ancient civilizations. Archaeologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, and environmentalists alike have always been drawn to the Euphrates River Basin to study the developmental history of the region’s natural ecosystems and human civilizations.

2. Habitat

Large patches of natural vegetation along the Euphrates River have been seen ongoing degradation due to the presence of large human settlements along the river basin since ancient times. The vegetation along the basin is influenced by the precipitation patterns along the course of river, which significantly decreases from the source of the river to its mouth in the Persian Gulf. Xeric woodlands occur in the upper mountainous and hilly courses of the river, and these are characterized by plants like pistachio trees, oaks, and members of the rose family of trees. Downstream of this vegetation belt lies a zone comprising of a mixed woodland and steppe vegetation, itself gradually being replaced completely by a dominant steppe landscape. The lower reaches of the river, meanwhile, only support desert vegetation. Much of the native fauna of the Euphrates River Basin have been lost over time due to human exploitation, and many of the once-native species, like the gazelle, onager, and Arabian ostrich, have become extinct or endangered in this region. Carnivores like the golden jackal, lion, leopard, red fox, and Syrian brown bear also thrived in the region long ago, but currently are either regionally extinct or have very low populations. Presently, a diversity of fish species (like the Tigris salmon), some water birds, rodents, water buffaloes, antelopes, frogs, and lizards inhabit the steppe and desert habitats of the Euphrates River Basin.

1. Threats and Disputes

The waters of the Euphrates, especially downstream in the river’s lower courses reaching Iraq, are laden with sediments and pollutants released from the cities, towns, villages, and agricultural fields along the upper reaches of the river. The construction of a large number of dams on the river’s upper and middle course also decreases the volume, which in turn increases the salinity, of the water reaching the populations in the arid areas of Iraq, causing clean water shortage in such downstream areas. The construction of reservoirs with large surface areas on the Euphrates facilitate large scale evaporation of water, with losses increasing from nearly 2 cubic kilometers of water in Turkey to 5 cubic kilometers in Iraq by way of evaporation alone. Construction of large scale dams and irrigation schemes along the Euphrates have displaced a significant number of human settlements, and also degraded the aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna of the region. For example, 55,300 people were directly adversely affected by the establishment of the Atatürk Dam. Historically important archaeological sites. like the Roman mosaics of Zeguma, have themselves been lost to flooding due to the inundation of large sections of the Euphrates basin. This has led to wide scale awareness campaigns by such international organizations as UNESCO to increase efforts to save such heritage sites.

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